Africa’s rising demand for infant milk challenges breastfeeding advocacy

By Joseph Ekeng

Proper infant nutrition is crucial for a child’s overall health and development. While breastfeeding is widely acknowledged as the best source of nutrition for infants, Africa is witnessing a surge in the popularity of infant milk formula, challenging efforts to promote exclusive breastfeeding. This shift is driven by urbanization, an increasing number of women entering the workforce, and strategic marketing campaigns. However, concerns about the safety of formula products and the high cost of these products remain significant obstacles.

According to a study published in the Nature Medicine Journal, only 37% of infants under six months of age in Africa were exclusively breastfed in 2017. Barriers to exclusive breastfeeding include cultural perceptions, misinformation, and the introduction of water and porridge to infants in the past. These factors have paved the way for the rise of infant milk formula as an alternative.

Africa heavily relies on imports to meet the rising demand for infant milk formula, with the market projected to exceed US$1.21 billion by 2026. Leading brands in the region include Nestle’s Nan, Danone’s Aptamil, Abbott Industries’ Similac, and Reckitt & Benckiser’s Enfamil. South Africa stands out as the largest market for infant formula, followed by Nigeria and Egypt.

The growth in the market is primarily driven by working mothers who have limited time to breastfeed their babies. With more women joining the workforce, the demand for formula milk has surged. This trend is particularly evident in South Africa, where women’s participation in wage employment has more than doubled since 1970. High birth rates and a rising number of women of reproductive age also contribute to the increasing demand for infant milk formula.

Marketing plays a significant role in shaping perceptions and driving demand for formula milk. Companies like Nestle, Danone, Lactalis, and FrieslandCampina have been successful in changing the perception of formula as a desirable and modern option. They employ sophisticated techniques and persuasive messaging to market their products, using scientific language, emotional appeals, and endorsements from healthcare professionals. Such marketing practices have influenced women’s perception towards breast milk in South Africa, Nigeria and other regions.

However, concerns over the safety of formula products persist. Recent recalls due to contamination have raised doubts about the industry’s ability to ensure product safety. The recalls include Abbott Industries, Nestle, Perrigo, and Reckitt, and have sparked worries about the safety of infant formula.

Despite the growing market for infant milk formula, there are factors that may limit its potential. The high cost of these products makes them unaffordable for a large portion of the population in Africa, where many live on less than two dollars a day. Governments and non-governmental organizations, including the World Health Organization and UNICEF, are actively working to promote exclusive breastfeeding and restrict the marketing of breast milk substitutes. Tightening regulations and limited disposable incomes pose challenges to the growth of the formula market.

To succeed in Africa, formula producers must prioritize the quality and safety of their products. Mothers in Africa, who often have higher education levels, demand products with strong brand images and good health credentials. Local production of infant milk formula in Africa remains an unexplored opportunity that can help address affordability concerns and ensure a shorter supply chain.

As breastfeeding rates have stagnated, Africa presents the next growth frontier for formula producers. Understanding local regulations, producing affordable products, and addressing safety concerns will be crucial for success in this emerging market, which is projected to exceed US$1 billion by 2026. However, efforts to promote exclusive breastfeeding and regulate marketing practices continue, emphasizing the importance of informed choices and supporting mothers in providing the best nutrition for their infants.


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